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Rays-Astros: Could Game 5 decide who fleeced Pittsburgh more?

Tyler Glasnow and Gerrit Cole, two pitchers the Pittsburgh Pirates traded away, face each other tonight in Houston.
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow (20) delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the American League Division Series Friday, Oct. 4, 2019 in Houston. [DIRK SHADD  |  Times]
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow (20) delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the American League Division Series Friday, Oct. 4, 2019 in Houston. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Oct. 10, 2019

Power pitchers Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow will take the mound in a winner-take-all postseason game on tonight in Houston.

If a Pirates fan read that in 2017, he or she would be elated. If these former top prospects are pitching in the 2019 postseason, that would surely mean Cole rounded back into form as a frontline starter while Glasnow anchored the bullpen in his new relief role for Pittsburgh.

Instead, Pirates fans can look at Cole and Glasnow, the starting pitchers for Game 5 of the American League Division Series in Houston and wonder ‘"what if?"

So why did the Pirates deal a pair of pitchers who would turn into playoff starters? And which team, Tampa Bay or Houston, fleeced Pittsburgh more?

In this file photo, Tyler Glasnow stands in the dugout before a Pirates game against the Detroit Tigers in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, April 25, 2018. [GENE J. PUSKAR | AP]

Glasnow’s road to Tampa Bay

What if the Pirates, sitting at 56-52 on 2018′s July 31 trade deadline, decided to stay with their planned rebuild and not trade young talent to the Rays for starting pitcher Chris Archer?

Glasnow entered 2017 as the No. 9 prospect in baseball, per MLB Pipeline. He split the season between Pittsburgh and Triple-A Indianapolis, struggling to an 7.89 ERA out of the Pirates rotation. Glasnow shifted to the bullpen in 2018, where he posted a 4.34 ERA.

The Pirates decided he was expendable at the trade deadline, and Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington sent Glasnow, outfielder Austin Meadows and pitching prospect Shane Baz to Tampa Bay for Archer.

“The opportunity to add a Chris Archer, we have very limited windows to add a pitcher of that caliber,” Huntington told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the trade. "We gave up a lot, but we feel like we got a lot in return.”

The Rays returned Glasnow to the rotation immediately after the trade, and that move paid off in 2019. Glasnow raced off to a hot start, posting a 1.86 ERA through eight starts before suffering an elbow injury. He missed nearly four months due to injury, but returned to the rotation in season’s final month. He allowed two runs in 4⅓ innings in ALDS Game 1.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) delivers a pitch during the eighth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 2 of the American League Division Series Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019 in Houston. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Cole’s offseason trade to Houston

What if Pittsburgh didn’t kick off its rebuild by trading Cole to Houston after he posted a pedestrian 4.26 ERA in 2017?

The Pirates finished 2017 with a 75-87 record, good for fourth in the NL Central. To salvage value for Cole, their former ace who posted a 2.60 ERA as recently as 2015, Pittsburgh traded him to Houston for Michael Feliz, Jason Martin, Colin Moran and Joe Musgrove.

“The reality that in Gerrit’s situation, while he’s going to be a very effective major league pitcher for the next two years, it was only going to be two more years in Pittsburgh before he tested free agency,” Huntington told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after the trade.

Cole immediately returned to ace status with Houston. He placed fifth in AL Cy Young Award voting in 2018, and he is in position to win it this year after leading the AL in ERA (2.50) and strikeouts (326).

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers in the first inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017 in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) [GENE J. PUSKAR | AP]

The Verdict

The trades look bad now because Pittsburgh dealt away a top prospect and their former ace, but one is worse because of its timing.

After Pittsburgh traded Cole and appeared to commit to a rebuild before 2018, the upstart Pirates posted a winning record in the first half of the season. The front office bought in and acquired Archer to replace Cole in the rotation.

In a world where teams choose to tank or go all in, the Pirates opted to do neither. The Archer trade signaled a sudden change in mindset. Pittsburgh wanted to contend just months after dealing Cole, further delaying their inevitable rebuild.

And to make the trade worse? Young players the Pirates gave up have thrived with the Rays. Meadows earned his first All-Star Game invite in 2019 and finished the year with 3.8 wins above replacement. Baz, the Rays No. 6 prospect, posted a 2.99 ERA with Single-A Bowling Green this year.

DIRK SHADD | Times Starting pitcher Shane Baz, one of the Tampa Bay Rays' top prospects, delivers from the mound while playing in the St. Petersburg International Baseball Series at Walter Fuller Complex, 7901 30th Ave. N., St. Petersburg, Wednesday afternoon, March 20, 2019. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

As for Archer? He owns a 4.92 ERA in 33 starts for Pittsburgh since the deal.

Contact Ryan Kolakowski at rkolakowski@tampabay.com. Follow @RyanKolakowski

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